The politics of social engineering

My latest ‘Beyond Boundaries’ column for The Psychologist discusses politics, social engineering and the use of mimes as a traffic calming measure.

For those following the UK election, there are also elections here in Colombia, albeit to choose the president. In the running is the mathematician, philosopher and ex-Mayor of Bogot√° Antanas Mockus who, whether you agree with his policies or not, is genuinely one of the most interesting politicians in the world.

The (English language) documentary Cities on Speed – Bogot√° Change is a fascinating account of how he and subsequent mayor Enrique Pe√±alosa transformed the Colombian capital into the safe, modern city it is today. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube if you want to check it out. If you’ve never been interested in politics or social planning before, this documentary might just pique your interest.

The film puts the moment that Bogot√°’s transformation began when Mockus, then an unknown in the mayoral election, dropped his trousers in front of rioting students who were shocked into stunned silence.

Since I wrote the column, Mockus has announced he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Despite this he says has no intention of abandoning his candidacy and has just taken a lead in the polls.

In 1995, the traffic in Bogotá, Colombia, was so chaotic that drivers had long since given up obeying the rules of the road, resulting in a disorderly free-for-all that was a major impediment to the city’s economy. The recently elected mayor of the city, who came to prominence after dropping his trousers to silence a hall of rioting students, decided on a creative solution to this similarly vexing problem: a troop of mimes.

Antanas Mockus realised that the people of Bogotá were more concerned about social disapproval than traffic fines, and so hired mimes to playfully reproach drivers that crossed red lights, blocked junctions and ignored pedestrian crossings. One cannot police by mimes alone and in a further measure to address driving behaviour, the mayor’s office brought in flashcards to allow social feedback. Each citizen was given a red card to signal to someone that their driving was poor and a white card to signal that the person who been particularly courteous or considerate.

When I tell British people this story, they seem mildly amused by the mimes, but fall about laughing when I mention the card scheme. It was, however, a great success both in terms of reducing traffic violations and in changing the culture of Bogot√° and was based on the best principles of social psychology. That is, we learn collegiate behaviour by social feedback and the best methods of social feedback are the ones that cause the least personal offence.

The British are much more averse to this sort of overt social engineering (it seems to evoke the “oh, come off it!” response identified by anthropologist Kate Fox) although subtler methods are now being raised in the run up to the elections. In late January, behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Tory Shadow Chancellor George Osborne wrote an article for The Guardian, championing behavioural economics as a way of altering citizens’ behaviour without mandating change. The idea is to take advantage of people’s cognitive biases and social tendencies – for example, they cite the fact that people use less energy when they get feedback on how much their using in comparison to similar homes in the area.

Whether this turns out to be an election gimmick to appeal to science literate voters or a genuine policy objective remains to be seen. Thaler was also involved in the Obama campaign who similarly touted behavioural economics as a policy measure, although the post-election reality has largely been business as usual.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

“The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by emailing sarsta[at]”

2 thoughts on “The politics of social engineering”

  1. On a similar note I know that Westminster Council (London) were assessing the use of mimes to increase road safety, possibly inspired by Colombia’s example. However in their case I believe they were going to be trying to get pedestrians to be more aware of traffic in apparently pedestrian areas that have a large number of buses and taxis.

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